THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
Many of my previous articles regarding officials have been about defending my fellow colleagues who take unnecessary abuse from players, coaches, and fans. Although I stand by those comments 110%, in the interest of being fair and balanced, today's article will actually be aimed at officials with the goal of causing some self-reflection and improvement.
When I look back at my ten years of umpiring baseball, sometimes I go back to the beginning and try to remember why I started umpiring in the first place. In my specific case, there was a multitude of reasons why I started umpiring baseball. I was two years removed from graduating college with no luck finding steady work in my field (which is performing, composing, and arranging jazz music). When I began to consider umpiring, the benefits of pursuing it kept adding up. I was getting into, in my opinion, the best part-time job available. I was remaining involved in the one sport which was ingrained into my DNA throughout my entire life. I was getting a physical workout (which was a lot easier than going to a gym). I began to have a new appreciation and understanding for the sport, which later inspired me to have a greater desire to spread my message of the importance of sportsmanship. And I was finally making a little bit of money, which was important for obvious reasons.
By becoming a sports official, I inadvertently joined a close knit fraternity of people who all share the same bond. We all care about our craft of officiating sports properly and upholding the integrity of each game. We get joy out of doing our job properly, regardless of who wins and loses. We all have to deal with the same people who don't understand that yelling and screaming at officials is not really that smart of an idea. It is one of the paradoxes of brotherhood because you never actually have to pledge yourself to group like you were trying to join a college fraternity; you just automatically become part of it. As Groucho Marx once said, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." And as that holds true to my standards, I still ended up being part of this club!
To this day, even after ten years of doing this job, I still get anxiety before stepping onto the field prior to each game. Thankfully, this doesn't scare me as much for two reasons. First, thanks to researching this phenomenon within the field of sports psychology, I've worked at trying to understand that this anxiety can actually be interpreted as excitement for something about which I simply care. Second, in talking with other officials, I've found that some of my colleagues who have been doing this far longer than I have still experience the same thing. So I'm not alone.
Why then would we continue to experience this anxiety or excitement? The obvious answer is because we, as officials, care about the job we do. We don't want to mess up. We want to get every call right. In theory, we are in the business of customer service, and our job is to make sure that every participant walks away with a positive experience, regardless of outcome. One of the best parts of the job of officiating is when a member of a losing team comes up to me after a game to shake my hand. It's easy for someone who just won to thank me for a good job; but getting someone who just lost to thank me for coming out shows class and respect, and it is reciprocated.
In fact, one could make the argument that this experience of anxiety holds true for anything of value in life. Although anxiety is usually defined as the emotion felt when something horrible could happen (even though it probably won't), how many times do we feel anxiety prior to something we know has the potential to be very good? As much as we take the time to understand anxiety from a psychological standpoint in the hope of curing or preventing it since it has such a negative connotation, there is one quantum of solace that must be highlighted: having anxiety about something usually means you care, and that's a great thing.
So how does this relate back to officiating again? Well, if I experience some form of anxiety prior to officiating a baseball game, it must mean I care about the game and the job that I will do.
The big question now, as we get into the meat of this discussion, is: do all sports officials feel this way in some form? And if not, why?
In ten years of umpiring baseball, for every large faction of good umpires I've encountered, I've also encountered a small number of officials who make me scratch my head and wonder why they're here. It's difficult to nail down and summarize, but much like the uncertainty of the strike zone (see what I did there?), you know it when you see it in someone.
It's natural to then start to ask questions about where this behavior originates within each person. Does it come from a background of being bullied? By becoming an official, you immediately become the authority figure with the last word. You are the judge and jury on the field, so if anybody starts to give you grief, you have the ability to enforce a penalty, which you may not have had in social situations throughout life.
Is it an ego trip? Some officials need the feeling of being the authority figure in order to feed their thirst for power. Maybe they don't get that in their life, either at home, at work, or even social circles.
The list really could go on for a long time regarding why certain people get into officiating if they're doing it for the wrong reasons.
What's interesting, though, is that this behavior can then also manifest itself in circumstances that don't directly relate to on-field officiating. For example, the state of New Jersey has instituted a new requirement for all state-certified officials for high school sports that they are to purchase and wear a specific mandatory uniform for each sport. It ultimately boils down to each official having to purchase a new set of shirts, jackets, and/or hats that vary from sport to sport. For example, as a baseball official, I was asked to purchase a new blue umpire shirt that had our New Jersey logo sublimated on the front and an American flag sublimated on the sleeve. I also purchased the optional long sleeve version of the same shirt, and I will probably eventually purchase the necessary jackets as well. Conversely, football officials were asked to purchase black and white striped shirts that had the same logos in the same spots. They were also asked to purchase hats with the logo embroidered on the front. They also had the option, like me, of getting other shirts with the logo on them for various weather-related situations. The goal was to have each official in each sport wearing the exact same basic uniform with little to no margin for error regarding looking identical.
This change in uniform was implemented over a three-year period to allow officials, and their representative organizations, to prepare for the change. It allowed them to budget money for the purchase as well as consider buying the shirts in bulk in order to save money.
I have never seen grown men have such a backlash or problem over what to wear.
Officials have gone on record saying they think the new uniforms are ugly and shouldn't have to wear them. Some officials have complained because the manufacturer had the shirts made in an American territory rather than the continental USA, thereby undermining our economy and society while also tying that argument into the shirts being poor quality. Certain officials just didn't like change. Others were upset that they were being forced to spend money for these shirts. (For the record, each shirt cost less than the fee received to officiate one game, on average.)
As someone who has some perspective in life, I'd like to step back and ask one question: "Are you guys serious?"
Are we really making a big deal over uniforms for officials? It's not like we're being asked to go out on the field wearing pink thongs and nothing else. (Although, I'm sure that would be a sight to see...)
The point is that some of my brothers and sisters in sports officiating create conflict themselves. Whether on a grand scale or a very small specific scale, elements of ego and selfishness come into play and take the focus away from what really matters in the context of our argument, which is doing a good job while out on the field.
That's not to say that all conflict is avoidable. Everyone in every walk of life faces conflict in some way. Even I face it as an official when not on the field, per se. I question whether or not to accept certain assignments when the fee for officiating the game is not near what I deem to be what my time, energy, and service is worth. I also try not to officiate games when I know a certain team or coach is going to give me an unnecessary headache based on how they argue with officials.
I guess I just wonder why some officials have conflict follow them. Why do some officials refuse to take a step back, look in the proverbial mirror, and ask if they can justify why they officiate or why they have issues with certain items in the world of officiating? Why do some officials need the feeling of getting into uniform and stepping out on the field in order to justify their decisions in life (or to run and hide from the real problems in their lives)? Why do some officials even bother to continue to officiate if all they do is complain about it? Why do some officials think that certain aspects of the job are "beneath" them? Do some officials actually think that people come to games to watch them officiate?
The only people who go to the game to watch the officials are other officials, friends and family of the official, and people there to evaluate the officials.
So do you officiate for the right reasons, whatever they may be?
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.